Water Is Life, the festival held at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth by Honor the Earth (Winona LaDuke’s arts-associated advocacy group), was about more than music.
Ten hours of music; Anishinaabe traditional ceremony; teaching; passionate statements from Native artists and non-Native allies; and performance marked the day.
The 5,000 participants danced, sweated in the 90-degree weather, ran around with giant streaming carp kites, helped to paint tipi covers, enjoyed the giant black bear and butterfly puppets that occasionally strolled the grounds — and roared “Stop Line 3.”
Line 3 is an Enbridge pipeline being built across tribal lands and under Minnesota rivers to carry oil-sands petroleum to be shipped overseas. Opposition to this pipeline has gone on for years but has reached fever pitch now, as the pipeline is about 80% complete. Camps of protestors are occupying digging areas, and over 700 of them have been arrested. Officials from 11 small towns along the pipeline route wrote to Duluth’s city government asking that this festival be shut down. Mayor Emily Larson refused, as there is nothing unlawful about the festival. A small plane flew over Bayfront Park with a “Go Line 3” banner, but all in attendance at the festival seemed to approve of the protest.
The festival was put together in what must be record time: under a month by Honor the Earth and First Avenue staff, supported by concerned musicians. Everything ran remarkably smoothly — there were food trucks, beverages from local breweries, advocacy tents, a clear focus on teaching about Native culture . . . and ecstatic music, hour after hour.
Introduced by Winona LaDuke, the festival opened with a remarkable event: the women of a midewiwin lodge performed a traditional water ceremony, in beautiful ribbon-skirt regalia and holding copper vessels. We were told that this rite is centuries old but was long performed only in secret because Native religions were outlawed by U.S. law. The ceremonial leader instructed people to put away their phones, as recordings or photographs of such ceremonies are not allowed; they are Anishinaabe cultural properties transmitted only by traditional means.
The music kicked off with Corey Medina, a Native rocker from Bemidji: a standup bass, guitar, and drums growled out driving original ballads of change and Native life.
Larry Long and his band followed, joined by old friend Dorene Day Waubanewquay (one of the lodge members), whose a capella traditional song amazed, delivered in her resonant and beautiful voice.
Thomas X, Red Lake rapper, served as a version of MC, and periodically roused the crowd to chant “No Line 3” with increasing force and good cheer.
All through the day, music was interspersed with teaching and stories — personal stories, political information, history. Annie Humphrey led off her set with a tale of her family, from the Marine Corps to a mountain in Japan, through the scent of wild rice and back to Leech Lake, which illuminated the songs that followed, including “Eat What You Kill” and “Aadzookaan.”
Anishinaabe “water walker” Sharon Day stepped up to sing a song she wrote for the first woman to do a water walk, and LaDuke introduced politicians who support the effort for a non-petroleum economy: State Senator Jen McEwen, Representative Frank Hornstein, Duluth City Council President Renee van Nett (who is Anishinaabe, the first Native woman to hold her position).
Charlie Parr brought the music back in a big way: he was in excellent voice, singing songs from his upcoming album and weaving his complex guitar magic. The crowd rose in a wave to dance under the sun.
One of the catalysts for the festival, David Huckfelt, of the beloved and lamented Pines, was on next. This veteran collaborator brought friends: among others, Erik Koskinen of Dead Man Winter, Quiltman (Quilt Sahne), Jeremy Ylvisaker, and the hoop dancer Samsoche Samson (son of noted actor Will Sampson, who played Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). This was a rich and varied set; each contributor wove their own voice into a kind of dream of cross-cultural life.
Guests followed, including Quechua women who spoke of their own struggles against oil companies and the devastation created in their Amazonian region.
Adia Victoria spoke of “decolonizing the God in her head” before launching into her music; Al Sparhawk performed with two incredible handdrummers from Fond Du Lac, Giniw and Nigigoons; Superior Siren’s Laura Sellner and her sable-clad cohort played “Swamp Creature” to fervid fans.
Finally, as the tyrannical sun began to set, Hippo Campus took the stage in a blaze of pink lights and rocked the crowd, who jammed the stage area and danced, while the boys stirred enthusiastic call-and-response chants of “Stop Line 3!”
The crowd had been expanding all day, and by the time headliners Bon Iver came on, the cool night air helped drive immense enthusiasm. Frontperson Justin Vernon had noted in an interview before the festival that he’s “never stopped thinking that art has the ability to change people’s hearts . . . more than a belief, it’s a feeling we all need to come together to save our environment from total annihilation. That’s all I care about.” From the stage he remarked that “we’d been staying home, and it was fine, actually. The only thing that brought us out was the chance to play for [this water festival].”
Vernon and friends started off with familiar music from For Emma, Forever Ago, which evolved into an ecstatic mad scramble of screaming guitars and feedback as, apparently, the feelings of live performance took hold. Seguing between familiar and less familiar takes from the Bon Iver catalog, Vernon moved to covers, performing a gorgeous version of Leon Russell’s “A Song For You,” with Mike Lewis blowing soulful sax as a saltie (an oceangoing ship) slipped along behind the stage.
Noting “it’s really hard to sing and play” at the same time, because he hasn’t been on stage for over a year, Vernon launched into a total jam frenzy that spiraled out into the night, spurring the crowd on.
Finally, though, the song Vernon chose as his last was another cover, “by a man born in Duluth”: yeah, the Dylan tune “With God On Our Side.” This bitterly ironic offering to Enbridge and other petrocompanies was given even more teeth, on this lovely evening, by recent events in Afghanistan. The crowd drank in this language, this near-lullaby of a cynical world.
The festival closed with a Song for the Water led by Dorene Day Waubanewquay, who taught us how to say the Anishinaabe words. All the thousands of voices, good ones, bad ones, joined in this brief but heartfelt allegiance to the waters that served as the glistening, everchanging backdrop to this day, this night.
Like I said, a lot more than music.
David Huckfelt & the Unarmed Forces